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Theater Review (NYC): As You Like It Transports Audiences to Shakespeare’s Arden Forest

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“When you enter the woods, magic happens.” That is the first sentence in the Director’s Notes of The Queens Players’ fine production of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It. The talented troupe is the resident company at The Secret Theatre in Long Island City, New York, and it would not be an overstatement for me to paraphrase those words by saying, “When you enter The Secret Theatre, magic happens.”

As You Like It has always been one of my favorite Shakespearean comedies. It is a pastoral romance in which the characters, hopeful of “a better world than this,” escape the trials and tribulations of their surroundings in search of a more simple and rewarding life, through either their own choice or through forced exile. When one character laments, “Oh, how full of briers is this working day world,” she is stating the frustration of many and the desire to find solace in a society full of dangers and oppressions.

shakespeareThe comedy certainly has some flaws compared to some of the Bard’s other classics, such as an over-reliance on telling rather than showing key plot points. Many pivotal scenes occur out of the audience’s view, only to be retold after the fact (i.e. the first encounter between Touchstone and Jacques, the heroic saving of Oliver’s life by Orlando, the conversion of Duke Frederick in the end). It is not surprising that certain moments of exposition are the weakest parts of the production. The Queens Players, however, manage to take the many merits of the play to superlative levels, bringing the orchards and forest of the tale to comedic and dramatic life on the stage.

Do not let the name of The Secret Theatre intimidate you – it is not too difficult to find. Located at 44-02 23rd Street in Queens, it is a charming, intimate space. The simple set, designed by Gregory Cicchino, effectively represents the location. Four large tree trunks with a minimalist rendering of a leafy canopy above the stage evoke the estate of Oliver de Boys and the court of Duke Frederick. Placement of some colorful flowers at the roots of the trees and removal of black veneers to reveal a beautiful, detailed painting by Stephanie Stover are all it takes to transform the place into the idyllic woods of Arden.

The actors do a commendable job of bringing it all to life. Rosalind is one of Shakespeare’s strongest female characters and Claire Morrison does a nice job of portraying her. She shows broad range in depicting the prim and proper charms of the banished Duke’s daughter and then the rambunctious side of her personality when she disguises herself as a boy named Ganymede when she herself becomes banished from the duchy.

Love at first sight is a romantic cliché that Shakespeare perfected in many of his stories, and it is a plot device that works extremely well in As You Like It. Rosalind falls in love with Orlando after watching him beat the champion fighter Charles in a wrestling match. Orlando, played with energy and charisma by Anthony Martinez, is also smitten, and spends the rest of the play learning to woo the object of his attraction through lessons from Ganymede, as Rosalind toys with his desires and tests his intentions. Both Ms. Morrison and Mr. Martinez manage to convey the love their characters feel for each other with nothing more than looks in each other’s eyes, both when they are struck by Cupid’s arrows during their first encounter and at the play’s climax when they stand before each other again and finally embrace with all their barriers down.

As strong as the male and female leads are, the strength of the play lies in the supporting cast. Chris Kateff does a wonderful job as Jacques, the often melancholy philosopher who weeps for the death of a deer and chastises Orlando for defacing the barks of the Arden Forest’s trees with his poetry, yet discovers a glimpse of the joy of life through his interaction with Touchstone, the court jester (performed with jolly abandon by Daniel Smith). Jacques is the sobering voice of intelligence, viewing life’s journey as pre-ordained, leading to an inevitable anticlimactic and bitter end, as he describes in his famous speech, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

Jacques’ doom-and-gloom nature is countered by the optimism of the banished Duke Senior. In an inspired act of casting, the roles of the usurping Duke Frederick and his vanquished brother Duke Senior are both played by the versatile Timothy J. Cox. He does a splendid job of making each unique and memorable. Watching him alter his appearance from the Napoleonic rigidity of Frederick to the more relaxed and bouncy Senior is a revelation. As the tyrannical Duke Frederick, Mr. Cox takes on a stiff, stern, and severe posture, switch in hand, barking at those around him. As Duke Senior, even though he has lost his title and earthly possessions to his traitorous brother, Mr. Cox plays with arms wide, ready to embrace not only his fellow Forest renegades, but also the world around him. Duke Senior’s loss turns out to be his blessing.

Melisa Breiner-Sanders is another stand-out, in the part of Celia, Duke Frederick’s daughter. Her emotional reaction upon hearing that her cousin and best friend, Rosalind, is being kicked out of the realm and forbidden to return, and her father’s refusal to hear her pleas to revoke the punishment, is one of the dramatic highlights of the play.

Others in the cast are also noteworthy: Amy Newhall as the mischievous Audrey, Larissa Laurel as the hilarious Phebe, and Michael Henrici as Orland’s domineering brother Oliver (and as the drunken Sir Oliver Martext in another nice bit of double casting). The rest of the supporting actors fill out their roles admirably: Jason Basso, Matt Cardenes, Louis Tullo, Jonathan Hinman, Griffin DuBois, and Harrison Gibbons.

The fight direction, lighting, costume design, and especially the original music by Vince Peterson, all deserve accolades. Director Greg Cicchino does a superb job of bringing it all together and drawing out the best from his actors.

The show runs Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, through September 5, 2009. All performances are at 8 p.m., with a special matinee performance on August 29 at 3:30 p.m. Tickets may be purchased online at TheQueensPlayers.com.

If you have the chance to see the show and enjoy it, be sure to vote for them for the New York Innovative Theatre Awards which celebrate Off-Off-Broadway excellence.

Enter The Secret Theatre and witness the magic for yourself.

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